Houston's Menil Collection prepares to open its doors. Modern art and antiquities are among museum's strengths

In the middle of Houston's Montrose district is a block-long building sided with gray clapboard. If it weren't for the roof's high-tech system of white ``leaves'' that filter in sunlight, the building might be taken for a well-appointed warehouse. The bland exterior, blending in with the modest scale of the neighborhood, belies the importance of what's inside. The building, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, holds the multimillion-dollar art collection of Dominique de Menil and her late husband, John de Menil.

The June 7 public opening of the Menil Collection (``de'' officially dropped for simplicity's sake) has been eagerly anticipated by the art world. ``Without a doubt, it's one of the most remarkable private collections assembled in this century,'' says Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

To a city gripped by a stubborn recession, the new museum is a source of pride. The opening occurs just a month after the unveiling of the $70 million Wortham Center for ballet and opera, and a few months before the dedication of the mammoth George Brown Convention Center.

Leo Castelli, a New York gallery owner, calls the collection ``very significant internationally'' and says he wasn't surprised Mrs. de Menil located it in Houston. ``She has a wonderful townhouse in New York, but her real habitat is in Houston. It's the place she and her late husband lived and worked for many, many years.''

The collection's strengths are in modern art, antiquities, Byzantine works, and the arts of tribal cultures. Surrealism, particularly the work of Max Ernst and Ren'e Magritte, forms a significant part of the museum, according to Walter Hopps, director of the Menil Collection.

The de Menils were French 'emigr'es who fled to America during World War II. Over five decades, they acquired 10,000 art objects, dating from Paleolithic times to the present. Half of the collection is comprised of prints, photographs, and rare books.

While many of their wealthy peers played it safe by buying Impressionist canvases, the de Menils bought avant-garde works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Mark Rothko before the painters became widely acclaimed. They also embraced the early work of a distinctive architect named Philip Johnson, allowing him to design their modern, flat-roofed home in River Oaks, a Houston neighborhood dominated by antebellum mansions.

Despite generous gifts to a range of Houston museums and schools, the de Menils' uncompromising tastes in art, architecture, and politics often put them at odds with Houston's conservative establishment. They were early civil rights supporters, dedicating Barnett Newman's ``Broken Obelisk'' sculpture to Martin Luther King Jr., backing the political career of black Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, and sponsoring human rights projects.

Overall, however, the de Menil vision has become much less controversial over the years. As evidence, roughly half of the $25 million construction costs of the museum building came from charitable Texas foundations and private sources. Most Houston art observers believe the de Menils were ahead of their time.

While the art collection is being universally hailed, some complain the building is dull. One renowned New York architect, who asked to remain anonymous, said he declined an offer from Mrs. de Menil ``because I didn't want to design a warehouse.''

But Richard Stout, a Texas painter who has had his canvases exhibited in his home state, New York, and Germany, defends Mr. Piano's design as not being an ``ego trip'' like the Guggenheim. ``And it's not another box,'' he adds. ``The roof, the sky, the landscape, in some way, penetrate and humanize the experience inside.''

Piano - who, with Richard Rogers, designed Paris's Pompidou Center - came up with a simple plan to hold the collection. The galleries, situated on the ground floor, have white walls that seem to float just slightly above where they meet the dark wood floors. Sunlight is filtered through a special glass that blocks ultraviolet rays and permits only a fraction of available sunlight into the galleries.

On the second floor is the Treasure House, rooms storing the bulk of the collection. Scholars will be admitted into these rooms, making the entire collection accessible.

Despite her passion for art, de Menil has never felt comfortable calling herself a ``collector.'' She insisted the building be non-monumental in scale and blend into the middle-class neighborhood. Eschewing the institutional label of ``museum,'' she preferred the simple title ``The Menil Collection.'' She also avoids speaking to the press.

But some have asked, if she's a selfless ``art nun,'' as Vanity Fair quipped earlier this year, why didn't she donate her collection to an existing museum?

``She has very specific and avant-garde ways of viewing what a museum should be. She doesn't want to make art a boring experience,'' says Elizabeth Glassman of Glassman & Lorenzo, an art consulting firm.

Giving up the collection to an existing institution would also risk its being dismantled. ``The Menil Collection has been selected with one eye, at most two - hersand her husband's,'' says Mr. Stout. ``This is unique in the world. Other large collections in Europe are not picked as selectively, with a concern for the interdependence of objects.''

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